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The Fallacy of Position Scarcity


Of all the methods to defend Joe Mauer’s salary, one doesn’t seem to work.

@BreakTheHuddle

The relationship between Minnesota Twins fans and their highest paid player, Joe Mauer, is difficult to comprehend, much less analyze. If you keep tabs on local columnists and Twins beat writers (Jim Souhan, Phil Mackey, Judd Zulgad, et al) one would think, by their output, that there are legions of anti-Mauer hooligans roaming the metro, incinerating  sideburned effigies while chanting about the evils of $23 million per season. If you ask a diehard fan, Mauer is one of the best hitters in the game and deserves to be paid as such, and the smattering of boos heard at Target Field upon the Hometown Kid’s introduction are the products of jealousy, unreasonable expectations or mental illness.

The truth is, frustration with the end of the Twins’ terrific 2001-2010 run of A.L. Central dominance has spilled over into unhappiness with the team’s highest paid player. It’s been a perfect storm that has struck; years of bad drafting and abysmal trades finally caught up to the organization, and the past year and a half has been their reckoning. For ten seasons the team found a way to contend, no matter which players left for more money elsewhere; and now, despite the fact their payroll has increased from $24 million (in 2001) to over $100 million (now), this outfit is worse than some of the late 1990s teams… and that’s saying something.

One thing that can’t be disputed: Mauer has one of the prettiest swings in baseball history.

At the center of the storm is the contract: 8 years, $184 million, running from last year (2011) through 2018 with full no-trade protection, meaning the team could not, at any point, deal away Mauer for prospects without his blessing. His defenders point to his resume (2009 A.L. MVP, 5 All-Star appearances, 3 time batting champion, 3 gold gloves) and his story (“Local Kid Makes it Big”) to justify the salary. In defense of his shortcomings, they cite the ballpark factor (Target Field is a “pitcher’s park”, thus his home run totals remain low), and the injuries (a byproduct of playing catcher) keeping him from accumulating the numbers we typically see from other players earning north of $20 million per season.

Each of those points could be meticulously dissected, but instead I’d like to focus on another commonly employed defense of Mauer – the argument from positional scarcity. It goes like this:

1)      There are very few elite catchers in baseball.

2)      Joe Mauer is an elite catcher.

3)      Therefore, he is worth a lot of money as a catcher because he gives the Twins what many other teams do not have (an offensive force behind the plate), thereby granting the Twins a great advantage over the other 29 teams in baseball.

So when someone suggests to a sports radio talk show host, or another casual fan, that a terrific young outfielder (like Andrew McCutchen or Carlos Gonzalez) would be more valuable (in tangible, on-the-field terms) than Mauer, they employ the above logic; outfielders are a dime a dozen. Catchers are hard to come by. So trading Mauer (even if the team could, but they couldn’t, even if they wanted to) would automatically be a bad idea.

In other sports, such thinking is absolutely legitimate. Any NFL front office would rather have a top-5 quarterback than the three best linebackers in football, because elite quarterbacks are hard to come by. In basketball, quality big men are somewhat scarce – and having one can go a long way to getting you a ring (think Tyson Chandler with the 2011 Mavericks). That’s part of the fuss about Dwight Howard’s destination, and part of the reason Anthony Davis was the consensus number 1 pick. In football, and in basketball, elite guys at one position can sway championship races.

Baseball, in so many ways, is a different animal than the other sports, and this case is no exception. Having an elite catcher gets you no closer to the Promised Land, because he is a) one of 25 guys on the roster and b) exerts a finite amount of influence on each game. He’s an offensive force 1/9th of the time – and in football and basketball, an elite player is an offensive force ½ the time. Baseball is a series of individual matchups (pitcher v. batter) with the goal of the offensive team being to score as many runs as possible. That’s it. There are no “extra points” when a catcher touches home plate because it’s rare or because he plays a difficult position in the field. A run is a run is a run – who cares where it comes from.

Wrapping your payroll into one position to preserve your advantage there is not a winning formula in baseball. Some Mauer apologists point to the Bill James statistic WAR (Wins Above Replacement) to augment his value. Since 2005, Mauer’s first full season, he is 7th in all of baseball in this category, behind guys named Pujols, Utley, Rodriguez, Cabrera, Holliday and Wright. To borrow from the FanGraphs website:

WAR basically looks at a player and asks the question, “If this player got injured and their team had to replace them with a minor leaguer or someone from their bench, how much value would the team be losing?

This is Michael Young of the Texas Rangers. He has a Gold Glove. This fact makes my head hurt.

This will certainly get me into trouble with stat-heads and the sabermetric crowd, but in my mind, WAR is far too position-dependent a statistic to trust with an important evaluation such as “How much money should a player make?” Shift Mauer over to first, or to right field, and instantly his WAR drops significantly. Besides, all the fielding metrics rate Mauer as a barely above average or just below average defensive catcher anyway (Gold Gloves be damned). No one gets paid $100, $150 or $200 million for their defense – I know this, because Nick Punto earned $750,000 last year. The big money players are paid as such because they are offensive forces – period.

So the sabermetric statistic I choose to look at is Weighted Runs Created Plus. (How many people did I just lose entirely? Half? Three-quarters? It’s alright. I felt like an uber-nerd who deserves zero readers as soon as I typed that sentence. I deserve it.) WRC+ is a statistic that neutralizes for offensive output only; it is an attempt to consolidate a batter’s entire offensive line into one measurable statistic. From FanGraphs:

Weighted Runs Created Plus (wRC+) measures how a player’s wRC compares with league average.  League average is 100, and every point above 100 is a percentage point above league average…wRC+ is also park and league-adjusted, allowing one to to compare players who played in different years, parks, and leagues.

 

Let’s compare Mauer to the other guys who earn close to what he does, and see how he measures up. In order to be fair, I have listed each player’s last four seasons before receiving big contracts – since Alex Rodriguez got his in early 2008, the numbers from below are from 2004-07, etc.

Name Batting Line Avg wRC+ Total WAR Avg Salary
Pujols

’08-‘11

.323/.421/.611

163 HR, 468 RBI

169.75 30.7 $24,000,000
Rodriguez

’04-‘07

.303/.403/.573

173 HR, 513 RBI

156.5 30 $27,500,000
Votto

’08-‘11

.312/.406/.550

115 HR, 384 RBI

151.75 22.9 $22,500,000
Fielder

’08-‘11

.284/.400/.537

150 HR, 446 RBI

146 17 $23,777,778
Braun

’07-‘10

.307/.364/.554

128 HR, 420 RBI

142.75 17.4 $21,000,000
Teixiera

’05-‘08

.299/.389/.550

139 HR, 480 RBI

141.25 21 $22,500,000
Howard

’06-‘09

.278/.379/.589

198 HR, 572 RBI

139.5 17.5 $25,000,000
Gonzalez

’07-‘10

.284/.377/.517

137 HR, 419 RBI

137.75 18.1 $22,000,000
Kemp

’08-‘11

.290/.351/.496

111 HR, 392 RBI

127.5 17.8 $20,000,000
Mauer

’06-‘09

.336/.419/.496

57 HR, 325 RBI

101.5 23.5 $23,000,000

 

As I said above, the WAR statistic loves Mauer – and has him third on the list. However, looking at the rest of the categories, Mauer doesn’t stack up. He’s 8th in the above group in OPS (ahead of Kemp and Adrian Gonzalez), dead last in home runs (with nearly half as many as the 9th place guy, Matt Kemp), last in RBIs (a dated, though underrated, statistic) and last, by a mile, in wRC+.

Before you begin to think that I merely picked the one sabermetric statistic Mauer was lacking in and randomly ran with it, consider this: the crux of my argument is that runs are runs, and positional importance is overrated. While the statistic with the word ‘wins’ in it (Wins Above Replacement) factors in the player’s all around game, and Weighted Runs Created does not, the value attributed to Mauer by WAR isn’t even of his own doing – it’s more a reflection of the poor crop of catchers. WAR’s own formula estimates Mauer, since 2005, has actually been a below average defensive catcher.

All that criticism doesn’t even take into account the injury history and questions about his ability to be a clubhouse leader. Fans don’t see passion – and maybe that’s difficult to show in a marathon sport like baseball – but given how the last year and a half has gone, perhaps the backlash was inevitable.

Pictures are worth a thousand words. The guys in this one (Matt Kemp and Albert Pujols) are worth nearly half a billion dollars.

What’s become clear is that the contract given to Mauer had much less to do with on-field performance than it did with marketing strategy and season-ticket sales. Coming off his monster 2009 season (which will never be duplicated, by the way – he never came close before, nor has he since, to approaching those numbers), the team felt pressure to get him locked in, long-term. Public relations, more than anything, swayed the decision-making process.

Perhaps that is what is so frustrating for some Twins fans. All at once, we understand the “necessity” for the team to do what it did – yet we want a winner. The $23 million accounts for nearly a quarter of the team’s $100 million payroll. In baseball terms that money would have been better spent for the 2012 season on, say, another catcher (A.J. Pierzynski, $4 million) a shortstop (J.J. Hardy, $7.5 million) and a pitcher (Edwin Jackson, $11 million). The Twins, minus Mauer, and plus those three, would likely be a better overall ballclub. As uncomfortable as that is to say, it’s probably true.

Yet many fans would’ve rioted if Mauer walked and wound up with, say, the Angels, Red Sox or (heaven help us) the New York Yankees. So we want to have our cake and eat it too. We wanted Mauer to stick around, and yet, we want that $23 million to spend on other things. We want him to be a power hitter, like the other ten guys listed above making the money he makes, but he won’t ever be that. We want his comparable players in baseball history to be Teddy Ballgame or George Brett rather than Jocko Milligan or Jose Vidro.

I’m not advocating trading or releasing the Sideburned Kid. What I am saying is, the relationship between Mauer and some Twins fans is nuanced. Fun to watch? Sure. Worth $23 million? No. We can’t really blame the guy for accepting $184 million, can we? So how do we reconcile the two feelings? How do we come to grips with the fact that the team will be hamstrung by this deal for the next decade or so, yet try to remain positive about our favorite ballclub?

These aren’t rhetorical questions. I welcome any advice – because I haven’t been able to figure it out, and I would really, really like to.

BreakTheHuddle is a fan of the Twins, Timberwolves and the 13-time World Champion Green Bay Packers. Reach him at BreakTheHuddle@gmail.com, @BreakTheHuddle on Twitter or leave a comment below!

 

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